Cloutier: The mental distress of our youth needs more attention
Lincoln High School in San Jose. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    The amount of pediatric emergency department visits for mental health reasons has doubled from 2011 to 2020, increasing 8% each year. The number of suicide-related visits has increased five-fold among youth.

    The Journal of the American Medical Association recently released a report sounding the alarm on mental health, particularly for children, adolescents and young adults. If this data doesn’t make us—as a community of parents, health care professionals and policymakers—open our eyes to the gravity of the situation at hand, I don’t know what will. This issue cannot be solved by more individual treatment, it has escalated to a public health issue that requires focused action.

    Can you imagine what future generations will look like if we cannot get youth treated today? The mental distress young people are currently experiencing will undoubtedly lead to more serious, complex and lifelong mental health disorders, in addition to a greater financial strain on our health care system. From a prevention perspective, we don’t completely understand what is driving this spike in mental distress. It’s time to look at some of the deeper causes we know are giving rise to this wave of emotional distress. There are two actions we need to prioritize now: 1) screening and early intervention, and 2) research into root causes.

    Simply, we need to get better at screening children in schools, youth centers, faith-based organizations, social media and really anywhere young people spend their time. While this expanded need will call on a system that is already experiencing unmeetable demand for treatment because of behavioral health labor shortage, we cannot put this on the backburner.

    Developing paraprofessional services to more support in schools and the community could mean a life-changing increase in early intervention and referral for treatment. We also need to start thinking outside the box in terms of how to reach young people, both physically and online. For instance, requiring social media platforms to provide a simple screening tool that refers a young person to care and/or a phone number for mental health support and advice could potentially change the trajectory of that child’s life.

    Secondly, we need to conduct more research into what is driving these increases in depression, suicide and sexual violence. We need to ask questions like what is happening in the psyche of kids that use social media? What are the behaviors associated with it or that spring from it? Are they leading to greater emotional distress?

    We do know that gun violence, the crisis of global warming and a polarized social and political culture are adding to the distress that young people are feeling. Without a clear understanding of the factors behind increases in anxiety or depression, not only can we not identify opportunities for early intervention, but we’ll also lack the ability to conduct prevention activities that address the root causes.

    Stronger screening techniques for early intervention and greater research can help us begin to truly serve young people in the way they deserve. The pandemic may have escalated a problem that was already worsening, but the “post-covid” era is now our future, and we must spend some of our collective wealth, resources and time to stop this suffering. Their future demands our action now.

    Mark Cloutier is chief executive officer of Caminar, a Bay Area-based behavioral health care agency.

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